How (and Why) to Retrain a Horse That Paces
Many gaited horses – indeed, it seems the the majority of them – will perform a pace or stepping pace as their preferred gait. While it’s always our intent to encourage natural gait action, it is best to try to bring the strongly lateral horse as close to the center of the gait spectrum as possible, and this for its own long-term welfare.
A horse that paces is moving one set of lateral, or same side, legs in perfect unison, creating an even 2-beat gait, with a moment of suspension between one set of feet picking up and the opposite set striking the ground. The motion of the pace is from side to side, and because of the suspension, there’s also some up and down movement. No fun for the rider!
The stepping pace is nearly identical to the pace, except that the hind foot sets down a split second before the same side forefoot. This eliminates suspension, and the resultant concussion, that occurs in a straight pace.
Sometimes a step pace is a smooth gait for the rider. But any horse executing it will be going in a strung-out manner that places too much weight over the front end, and discourages proper balance and collection. In other words, the horse will land heavily on each front leg, while each hind leg will be hyper-extended behind it before the weight comes off, placing excessive stress on the hocks and stifle joints. This frequently results in problems with the soundness of these structures. It also encourages a ventroflexed – hollow backed – frame, making the horse hard to fit for saddle, and weakened throughout its topline. Since the horse’s back muscle (the longissimus dorsi) is the largest muscle in its body, we should keep it strong and healthy for as long as possible.
Pace isn’t only unfortunate for the horse, however. The most common complaint I receive, by far, is from people who have horses with extremely uncomfortable pace gaits under saddle. Many of these poor souls despair of ever being able to retrain these horses, yet are emotionally attached to them.
Many people do not realize there is a problem with the pace or step pace, and believe it is a correct saddle gait. One highly respected mainstream equestrian magazine ran a feature article on the subject of gaited horses, and every photo in the article showed horses, with widely grinning riders, performing fast pace or step pace gaits!
As with any gait training, the primary riding exercise for retraining the extremely laterally gaited horse is to practice working the walk, with increasing speed and correct collection. Animals that have been permitted – or even encouraged – to pace, however, will progress much faster in their retraining if a few additional techniques are added to their riding routine.
It can be a real challenge to retrain an animal that has been allowed to pace or step pace. These gaits, while murder on the horse’s body over the long term, are extremely easy to perform. All the horse needs to do is stiffen through the body and shuffle its same side sets of legs forward and back. . . forward and back. . . forward and back. . . I repeat this so you get the feeling of the hypnotic effect such an easy, thoughtless gait can have on the horse. It is outright addictive!
Like any addictive behavior, the first order of business is to obtain total abstinence. The gaited horse must not, under any circumstances, be allowed even one step of pace or step pace. (Perhaps I should design a 12 Step Program for pacers?) Many riders mistakenly believe the comfortable step pace they experience is a rack, running walk, or other acceptable gait. In fact, at clinic and expo presentations I sometimes have the audience inform a rider when their horse is performing a lateral gait, as the rider simply cannot discern this for themselves.
Since you can’t fix something that you don’t know is dysfunctional, the rider must first learn how to discern a strongly lateral gait. One of the most telling signs is that the horse’s head and neck swings from side to side, rather than up and down. Also, you might feel as though riding the proverbial ‘plank,’ since pacey horses are stiff through their bodies. Usually the head is quite high, though some horses overtuck their heads in a type of false collection.
If you can have someone video tape you riding, you can study the tape to see what precise characteristics are evidenced when the animal’s lateral (same side) sets of legs are moving in synchrony, or nearly so. While watching, envision yourself in the saddle, and recall what your physical sensations were when riding this gait. Then when you actually do ride, pay close attention to all of these indicators. You might ask someone on the ground to inform you when the horse turns pacey.
As you work the walk, when you sense the horse slipping into lateral gear, the first thing to do is to get him to rebalance his weight over his haunches. You do this, to start, by asking for a correct halt. . .and finessing this to a half halt. Half halts are the heart of teaching your horse how to carry itself properly, at gait and otherwise.
This work will help you to generate forward energy that is ‘caught’ up on the bridle so that the horse is encouraged to shorten its frame by lifting its back, and shifting its weight rearward, over its haunches. This will, in turn, lighten up the front end, and change the timing of the gait.
Start this work by asking the horse to move forward as energetically as possible at a simple walk–don’t try to get any gait. Then request a halt by deepening your seat, and taking your reins (remember: push down with your seat, then take with the reins). What you're doing is 'collecting' that forward energy on the bridle, so that the bridle acts like a wall against which the generated energy is gathered, and stopped.
When the horse’s energy is brought up against the bridle, and he begins to slow down, continue squeezing with your thighs, take up more on the reins and ask him to stop energetically. Pretend it’s a mini sliding stop. Once he's halted, immediately ask him to move energetically forward again by pushing with your seat and squeezing with your legs–however, give back only a portion of the rein you took up for the halt. You want your horse to come up onto the bridle with some contact, so that its frame shortens and the back rounds up. How much contact you maintain depends upon the horse. You’ll need to stay attuned for cues to know how much rein contact to maintain.
If your gaited horse stiffens up its frame so that it loses all or most of its head action at the walk, then give up a bit more rein. If the head is swinging back and forth, rather than up and down, then you’ve probably given up too much rein because the horse is moving laterally. In that case perform another halt, and keep hold of a bit more rein. You want to feel your horse’s back moving underneath you, and see the energy flowing through to the neck, poll and head via energetic head action.
Once you’ve got a feel for the halt, try some rein backs. To do a proper rein back, start with the halt, but rather than pushing your horse immediately forward, continue to push with your seat/legs and take on the reins until the horse takes a step back–then ask for forward action and maintain appropriate contact on the bit. All of this helps tremendously to get your horse gathered up and moving off its haunches.
Once you’ve mastered a correct halt, and rein backs, it’s time to practice the half halt. This exercise is the most important one for helping to rebalance and correct the pacey horse. You start exactly as though you are going to ask the horse to halt. The instant you feel the horse hesitate, maintain rein contact and push the horse forward into an even more active walk. What you’ve done is rebalance the horse over its haunches, rounded up the back, and lifted the belly. Every time your horse gets high headed, stiff, or starts falling out of correct walk or gait form, do a good active halt halt. Practice half halting as you go down the trail, every 10-12 strides. Do them while traveling downhill. While it is a lot of work for the horse (and at first, for you too!), it will result in a much stronger back, better balanced horse, and vastly improved saddle gaits.
Another great exercise for pacey horses is to work over ground poles. These can be eight or ten, ten-foot long landscape timbers. Set them apart to about 1 ½ times the length of your horse’s body, chest to buttock (10’ is about average). Perform a working walk at the ‘breaking point’ in a large (at least 80’) circle. (The ‘breaking point’ is a walk at the speed right where your horse wants to break to pace.) As you come into the poles, half halt your horse, and then push him as fast as he can go over the poles. If he gets lazy and bangs his feet on them, give a short check on the bridle and command ‘quit!’ If he continues to bang his feet on them, turn him directly back over the poles in the opposite direction and make him work them, back and forth, until he makes one clean round. Then praise him and take him back out on the circle.
If he just can’t seem to clear the poles with his feet, change the distance between them until you get something that works. Horses have naturally different length strides, so what works for one horse might not work for another.
Even confirmed pacers find it difficult to pace over poles, and will usually begin to perform a lovely, well-balanced, four-beat gait while doing this exercise. Be sure to immediately (timing is everything with horses!) check back to a working walk after the last pole is cleared, or the great speed will cause the horse to revert to pace.
This exercise is useful because the horse generally looks down to see where its feet are being placed – resulting in a raised back, and better balance. It breaks up the two beat pace, and helps to establish ‘muscle memory’ for the desired four-beat gait. Several days of practice for 15-20 minutes at a time generally confirms the gait.
Another useful exercise using the ground poles is to perform lateral serpentines around them. This helps to teach the horse to soften, bend and supple through the body, while giving to the rider’s seat, leg and rein aids. You will need to work from a comfortable bit, (such as my 2nd Generation Imus Comfort Bit), that allows true independent action on each side. If you use a jointed snaffle, use tape or over the center joint to ensure there is no pinching of the horse’s tongue when you take on the bit.
Using a direct rein on the inside – while moving your outside rein forward, not up over the neck – take your horse through the poles from side to side. Bend him around your inside leg, and use your outside leg to prevent his haunches from drifting or kicking too far outward. He may tend to ‘drop’ his leading shoulder. If so, you can use your inside leg, and rein, to remind him to keep it lifted. At least at first, I wouldn’t worry too much about this. Dressage riders may get all technical, but for now, these stiff pacey horses do well just to bend through the poles without falling down sideways!
Another useful exercise for pacey horses is to canter them, as this teaches them to use two diagonal pairs of legs – on set in unison, one set in opposition – and totally breaks up the lateral action of pace. However, I offer this advice with a stern word of caution. Horses with strong lateral gaits have a strong tendency to cross-fire, which means to take opposing canter leads on the front and rear legs. This is extremely dangerous, as the horse may easily hit a fore foot with a hind foot, resulting in a somersaulting fall, right on top of the hapless rider. This can result in serious injury, or death. So if you ask for a canter, and find yourself pushed forcefully up out of the seat with each stride, immediately bring the horse back down to halt, and begin again. You must always ask for the canter from the walk, or halt, and never from a pace or step pace. It may be that your pacey horse will not be able to canter until he’s developed a much stronger ability for a collected, correct walk (which also breaks up the lateral action effectively, over time).
A canter-challenged horse often does well when asked for a canter on an uphill incline. This is because the horse’s weight is naturally shifted rearward, over it’s haunches, and the front end is lightened, making it easier for it to take a correct lead, both front and hind. If you use this technique, bring the horse back to walk at the top of the incline, rather than allowing the canter to deteriorate into pace or cross-cantero once you hit level ground again.
Working pacey horses through deep sand, snow, mud, or even grass, can help to break up the strong lateral action. Riding them with horses that are more squared up, assuming the companion horses don’t move too quickly, can also help their timing.
It is imperative, as this training progresses, that you ride with people who are sympathetic to your cause. It will not work to spend a week, or three, teaching your horse how to move in a functional, square fashion, only to head out on the trail with friends who insist on riding at a clip that outstrips your horse’s ability to keep up without breaking to pace. You’ll find yourself very nearly back to square one, and believe me, this is as frustrating for your poor horse as it is for you!
I would be gravely remiss if I didn’t mention one, if not the most common reason for pacing: inappropriate saddle dynamics. All the gaits that gaited horses perform are based, to one degree or another, on the four-beat walk. If you watch a horse walking across a field, you can easily see that the motion of the horse’s back moves from the loins, through the back, shoulders, and neck, and results in a head nod as the horse uses its head to balance through the stride. In other words, at a walking gait, the action through the back is a back-to-front, rolling, wave-like motion. This is how it should be when a horse is gaiting under saddle, as well.
The rigid trees that our saddles have traditionally been built upon, as well as the rearward placement of those saddles (far behind the horse’s true center of gravity), greatly hinders this natural motion. In fact, with a rider up, and positioned over the weakest point of the horse’s back, on a rigid saddle tree. . .when that wavelike energy starts to roll forward and strikes the back edge of the saddle tree bars, the horse has little recourse but to hollow out to avoid the discomfort. A hollowed out, stiff-going horse is likely to be, or become, a pacey horse. Until any issues with saddle (and bitting) dynamics are effectively dealt with, little progress can be expected with retraining. (You can watch my gaited saddle fitting and equitation video here)
Time and patience are your best tools when working with a pacey horse. Your patience will pay off in the form of much more time, i.e.: many more years of soundness for your special equine companion. But that’s only the most obvious benefit. You’ll discover there are few things more exhilarating than that first perfect gaited ride, after you’ve diligently worked to help your horse become a true ‘partner of a lifetime.’ What you’ll discover is a secret shared by only a few: the process is, ultimately, a lesson in growth and change, and a gratifying reward in itself.
May you have many happy, comfortable - and smooth! - trails!